One can assess ASEAN’s recent emergency meeting in Jakarta in two ways. One scenario is cautiously optimistic; the other would be tantamount to pure fatalism.
ASEAN Leaders have met in person for the first time in well over a year since March 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic reared its head. It was also the first international meeting that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing attended since the February coup in Myanmar.
While ASEAN has been criticised for its lack of effective action on the coup, the meeting itself is a testament to the grouping’s convening power. The meeting, which took place in Jakarta at the ASEAN Secretariat, was the outcome of weeks of shuttle diplomacy by several ASEAN foreign ministers, including back-to-back bilateral meetings between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his counterparts from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore in early April. After the meetings, China expressed support for ASEAN to play a key role in resolving the Myanmar crisis and restoring stability to the region. Even then, ASEAN still took some time to secure the attendance of all the leaders with last-minute withdrawals by Lao PDR’s Prime Minister Phankham Viphavanh, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan O-Cha and the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte.
The emergency meeting, which was scheduled for two hours, eventually went over three hours with some semblance of consensus emerging over five points: (1) an immediate cessation of violence; (2) constructive dialogue; (3) a special envoy (note: “of the ASEAN Chair”, not ASEAN) to facilitate mediation; (4) humanitarian assistance through the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre); and (5) visit of the special envoy and delegation to meet all parties. A sixth point that ASEAN Leaders pressed for — the release of political prisoners — was not accepted but reflected in the statement’s preambular paragraph 8, where ASEAN leaders noted that they had “heard calls for the release of all political prisoners including foreigners”. After the meeting, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Myanmar general was “not opposed” to a visit by ASEAN and that he would “take the points in which he considered helpful”. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said that the fact that Senior General Min Aung Hlaing did not reject the proposals was “very encouraging progress”.
Reading the statement and the debriefs from individual leaders, one could assess the meeting outcomes in two different ways. We could either take ASEAN’s 5-point consensus at face value and see if the junta chief would follow through in good faith over the next few days; or the general would reject the 5-point consensus and nothing will change the situation. The first scenario is no skin off anyone’s back. Whether the level of violence against protesters will be scaled back over the next few days remains to be seen. From weekend reports, the security forces had continued their harassment of citizens demonstrating with the banging of pots and pans in the evening. The second scenario is tantamount to pure fatalism. ASEAN cannot remain passive but be proactive in monitoring implementation and compliance. The appointment of the Special Envoy, the nomination of delegation members and the activation of the AHA Centre must be done, and quickly. Most importantly, ASEAN’s informal links with the National Unity Government should be activated, if this process is not already in motion.
Whether ASEAN succeeds or fails in providing a solution to the Myanmar crisis under the cover “alibi diplomacy” would determine its final score in the larger geo-political strategic game.
Beyond discussing the Myanmar crisis at length, the ASEAN Chair quite deftly managed to clear a few outstanding issues in the first half an hour of the meeting. The first is securing the Leaders’ approval to admit the United Kingdom as ASEAN’s 11th Dialogue Partner by the 54th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in August. The decision on the UK’s Dialogue Partnership application has been blocked since the 1999 moratorium that ASEAN placed on the admission of new Dialogue Partners after a rapid expansion of its Dialogue Partner network in the 1990s. London’s application was due to be considered later this year, but it looks like Christmas has come early for the UK. With this hurdle crossed, the UK will now be able to seek membership in other fora such as the ARF, EAS, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) and ADMM Plus.
The second and third issues were the confirmation of meetings with the two major powers — China and the US. The Leaders instructed the Foreign Ministers to hold these meetings “as soon as possible, prior to the 54thASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting”. China has offered a special and physical meeting with ASEAN foreign ministers sometime in the middle of this year. The purpose of the ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting will be to discuss strengthening cooperation with ASEAN. Outstanding issues such as the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea will certainly feature.
The Biden Administration has also offered a US-ASEAN Special Summit, albeit a virtual one, to be held this year. There has not been a US-ASEAN Leaders’ level summit since 2019. The invitation by then President Donald Trump to host an ASEAN Heads of Government/State at a summit in 2020 was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With US policy towards Southeast Asia increasingly becoming a means to an end — that end being China — ASEAN would be wise to take up the US’ offer of a summit, even if it is only virtual and even if ASEAN would be subjected to intense pressure on Myanmar. This will help to improve ASEAN-US relations under the new Biden Administration and at the least, strengthen ASEAN-US official interactions.
In the final analysis, however, Myanmar remains the most critical test of ASEAN centrality and unity. ASEAN is prepared to stay the course with this problem and for the long haul, but it has also to continue playing a strategic game and keep its eye on other balls. As one commentator notes, a “never acknowledged aspect” of ASEAN’s centrality is “alibi diplomacy”: since the grouping claims centrality, it can if necessary be held accountable for all that happens in Southeast Asia, “to deflect blame or serve as a convenient excuse”. Whether ASEAN succeeds or fails in providing a solution to the Myanmar crisis would determine its final score in the larger geo-political strategic game.
Sharon Seah is Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.